Judges back limits on strip-search of inmates

Times Staff Writer

Strip-searches are so dehumanizing that they violate a person’s constitutional rights if conducted without good reason to suspect that an arrested individual is carrying contraband, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.

The decision came in response to a lawsuit challenging San Francisco city and county policies of routinely strip-searching inmates in an attempt to stem the flow of drugs and weapons into the jails. A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the practice employed by city and county authorities violated constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

The panel also ruled that San Francisco County Sheriff Michael Hennessey’s claim that the indiscriminate strip-searching was intended to protect other prisoners and jail staff from potential harm does not shield him from lawsuits.

“The intrusiveness of a body-cavity search cannot be overstated,” read the decision written by Circuit Judge Sidney R. Thomas in a case filed on behalf of antiwar activist Mary Bull and eight other plaintiffs.


“To justify such a dehumanizing and humiliating invasion of privacy, there must be some reasonable relationship between the criteria used to identify the specific individuals eligible for a strip-search and the interest in preventing the introduction of contraband,” Thomas wrote.

Strip-searching has been restricted in recent years in most California jails to prisoners whom authorities have probable cause to believe are carrying contraband, including in San Francisco, where the blanket policy was loosened in 2004.

Los Angeles County jails took in more than 170,000 prisoners last year but conducted body-cavity searches only when there was an “individualized suspicion” that the arrestee was carrying contraband, said Sgt. Paul Schrader. The Los Angeles Police Department abides by the same policy.